Dr. Christina Kilby teaches Buddhism at James Madison University. Trained in the study of Tibetan Buddhism, her current research addresses the intersection of religion and migration in the Buddhist world. Her work has appeared in scholarly journals including The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Numen: The International Review for the History of Religions, and The Journal of Buddhist Ethics. She consults with the International Committee of the Red Cross’ project on Buddhism and international humanitarian law.
Buddhism and the Laws of War
How can a religion that promotes non-violence inform the laws of war? Buddhism is practiced by around 500 million people today; Buddhist-majority states have standing armies and they experience conflict. While Buddhism encourages non-violent solutions to conflict, Buddhism also offers resources for limiting the negative effects of armed conflict when it occurs.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has launched a collaboration with academic researchers, Buddhist monks and nuns, and military and government leaders to explore the connections between Buddhism and the laws of war, or international humanitarian law (IHL). Here is what we have learned so far:
Buddhist mindfulness practices are highly effective for those in high-stress situations, like combat zones. A clear and conscientious mind supports several requirements of IHL: to distinguish between civilian and military targets, to exercise precaution in planning attacks, and to ensure that every attack is proportional to the military advantage gained by it.
Buddhist meditations on compassion and loving-kindness support the principle of humanity in IHL: the recognition that we are all human beings, that enemy prisoners should be treated with basic human dignity and that cruel methods of warfare, like landmines or chemical weapons, should be abandoned.
Buddhism also includes a principle of protection that can be applied to non-combatants during times of war. The “gift of fearlessness” is the practice of protecting those in fear for their lives, and can be extended to civilians, displaced populations, children, medical workers, humanitarian workers, and others vulnerable to harm in the cross-fire.
The many connections between Buddhism and IHL show us that it is possible to bring Buddhism onto the battlefield and that this ancient tradition has plenty to offer our modern world.